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Thursday 5th May 2016

Ever since I started playing fantasy baseball and spending way too many hours reading expert commentary, the terms "first half player" and "second half player" have been a constant part of the vernacular. Coincidence or not, there was always a group of players who repeatedly excelled at certain times of the season while repeatedly struggling at other times. Adam LaRoche and Mark Teixeira are two players that come to mind who routinely got off to slow starts before heating up during the summer months. Over the years, I began to buy into this theory. Maybe it wasn't a coincidence. Maybe there were some players who simply needed a certain number of at-bats to get into a groove.

I could have taken this one step further by putting stock into monthly splits, but I figured it would be taking things too far. Still, the temptation to at least glance at these splits is often too strong to ignore. So, as we begin the month of May, let's take a look at last season's May leaders in the five standard hitting categories. How did they fare the rest of the way? How are they faring so far this season? Could they possibly enjoy an equally successful month of May in 2016? Note that I'm using Hits instead of AVG.

HITS

Jason Kipnis (51) - After batting .429 with four homers and 17 RBI last May, Kipnis failed to hit more than two home runs or record more than eight RBI in any of the season's final four months. Although he finished the year with a stellar .303 batting average to go along with 86 runs scored, the power and speed production (9 HR, 12 SB) left a lot to be desired. This season could be a different story for the Indians second baseman, as his three homers and three steals through 20 games has him on pace for his first career 20/20 campaign.

HOME RUNS

Bryce Harper (13) - Who else but the NL MVP? The month of May turned out to be Harper's most productive month overall, as he batted .360 with 13 homers and 28 RBI. The rest of his season was pretty good too, and Bryce has been outstanding so far this year. Don't be surprised if he's the clear-cut No. 1 overall pick in drafts next spring.

RBI

Ryan Braun/Prince Fielder/Bryce Harper (28) - In addition to Harper, Braun and Fielder both made their fantasy owners smile last May, and both entered the season with legitimate injury concerns. By season's end, Braun was the only player in baseball with at least 25 homers and 24 steals. Despite his fine 2015 performance, the injury risk factor once again lowered Braun's draft day price this year, and owners who were willing to take a chance on him are so far feeling good about their decision. Through 21 games, Milwaukee's right fielder is batting .338 with five homers, 17 RBI and two swipes. As for Fielder, after going .305-23-98 last season, he's off to a so-so start this year, batting a meager .193 with a modest two home runs but a solid 16 RBI. Prince has been an ultra-consistent run producer when healthy, so fantasy owners should be pleased about their investment, especially since his DH-only status likely shaved a few bucks off his price tag.

RUNS

Jason Kipnis (30) - See above, though I must add that Kipnis has never disappointed in the runs department, and I don't expect him to disappoint this year.

STOLEN BASES

Dee Gordon (12) - Well, I guess Gordon won't be stealing 12 bases this May. In fact, he won't be stealing any bases. News of his 80-game suspension really came out of nowhere, and it's obviously a tough break for his fantasy owners. But this is the downside of building your squad around a dominant speedster. Those who spent a top-30 pick on Gordon penciled him in for 50-plus steals and likely did not draft enough 20-plus SB guys. I prefer to spread the risk. The good news is that Gordon will be back, and with two-plus months to make up ground, he could still finish the season with 25-30 steals.

But that's just an estimate. I'll need to check his August, September and October splits from last year to give you an exact number.

Some fantasy owners tend to focus on the elite players when judging the success of their drafts. For me, the middle and late rounds are the stage of an auction, when most players are being purchased for single-digit dollars, are much more important. Leagues are won by drafting players for $5 who end up delivering $15 in value. Leagues are not won by drafting a player for $40 who ends up delivering $40 in value. When preparing for the Tout Wars Mixed Auction draft each spring, I always make a long list of guys who could reward me with a decent profit, and if I walk out of the draft room with two or three of those players, I walk out of the draft room happy. And, I walked out of the draft room in a fairly good mood this year, as I had secured a number of my targets.

Three weeks into the season, however, I'm starting to question exactly what I saw in some of these players that led me to believe in their profit-earning ability. All of the following players are off to slow starts, and even more depressing is the fact that a number of players who were included in my original long list but did not land on my roster are outplaying the guys who did find a home on my team. And as it turned out, my underachievers were the more expensive players. So, who am I talking about?

Ketel Marte ($7) - Marte was the talk of the town towards the end of the draft season as more owners studied his 2015 stat line and stellar minor league numbers and became convinced that a .280 batting average with 25-plus steals was well within reach. By mid-March, the 22-year-old had moved up to the top-12 in most shortstop rankings. Eventually, I was swayed by this wave of optimism and was quite surprised to land Marte for only seven bucks. Right now, it's looking like I overpaid by seven bucks. Through 14 games, Marte is batting .212 with only two stolen bases and five runs scored. After opening the season hitting near the top of Seattle's lineup, he's hitting mostly in the No. 9 spot these days, a frustrating development for owners relying on him to contribute in the runs department. But Marte is still very young, and I think the Mariners will be patient with him, so I'm not in full panic mode yet. Check back with me in a few weeks.

Could have drafted: Neil Walker ($6)

Pedro Alvarez ($7) - Everything was set up so nicely for Alvarez heading into this season. He would get a fresh start with the Orioles and would greatly benefit from playing half of his games in home run-friendly Camden Yards. And it seemed like the fantasy world had completely forgotten about him, even after he slugged 27 home runs in what was widely viewed as a disappointing 2015 campaign. To be honest, I wish I had forgotten about him too. No homers and one RBI entering play on April 23rd? Really? The good news is that it can't get any worse for Pedro, so I'll just need to sit tight and hope for a hot streak. 

Could have drafted: Chris Carter ($6)

Julio Teheran ($6) - Teheran as my SP5 in a 15-team mixed league? Sign me up! After struggling throughout the first half last season, the Braves righty posted a fine 3.42 ERA in the second half, and factoring in his stellar numbers from 2013-2014, he seemed like a no-brainer bounceback candidate. But the inconsistency that plagued him during the early portion of 2015 has returned, and my patience is being tested. On the other hand, Teheran's two poor outings so far have come against two upper-tier offenses in the Cardinals and Nationals, so perhaps he deserves some slack. I'm still a believer in him, as crazy as that might sound.

Could have drafted: Jaime Garcia ($5)

Nori Aoki ($3) - Being that Tout Wars is an OBP league, I was pleased to get Aoki (career .351 OBP) for three bucks. But OBP wasn't the only reason why I had targeted him. As the projected leadoff hitter atop an improving Mariners lineup, the 34-year-old could tally 80-plus runs and approach 20 steals. Well, through 16 games, Aoki sports a .265 OBP and is on pace for 61 runs. Oh, and he has yet to steal a base. Maybe he's simply too old to be a reliable source of steals. Maybe he's simply too old to be a reliable source of anything. Maybe I need to give Aoki some more time.

Could have drafted: Kevin Kiermaier ($1)

 

We tell fantasy baseball owners not to even look at the standings until May. We tell them not to overreact when one of their key players gets off to an ice cold start to the season. The advice part is easy. The more challenging part for us fantasy industry people is to practice what we preach. I look at the standings every day in April, but avoiding the temptation to overreact has gotten easier with experience. After all, this is my 16th full season of playing this game based upon a game. By now, I should know better. At one time, I surely would have been freaking out about the early performance of the following players who I own in at least one league. Not anymore.

Chris Archer - The 17 strikeouts in 10 innings are nice, but Archer's late-season fade last year seems to have carried over into 2016. Command has been an issue and he's simply throwing way too many pitches per inning. But I'm not concerned yet. Fatigue could explain Archer's September struggles last season, and the schedule hasn't been kind to him so far this year as he has faced the Blue Jays and Orioles, two of the top offenses in the American League. The bad news is that he's scheduled to pitch against both teams again within the next few weeks, but perhaps by then he will have figured things out, and Tampa Bay's schedule will be less AL East heavy in May.

Justin Upton - This is a little surprising as Upton has historically been a fast starter. Not this year, as he's 4-for-19 with no homers, no RBIs, one run scored and eight strikeouts over his first four games as a Tiger. But Upton is a notoriously streaky player and if this 4-for-19 stretch came in the middle of June, we wouldn't even notice it. For Rotisserie owners, the end of season stat line is what matters, and in that respect, Upton is about as consistent as they come.

Curtis Granderson - Expecting a repeat of his 2015 season might be expecting too much from Granderson, but fantasy owners of the Mets outfielder can't be too pleased with what they have seen thus far, one hit in 13 at-bats. Relax. Granderson is another streaky hitter, and this sample size is minuscule. Expect 20-plus homers and 85-plus runs and you won't be disappointed.

Miguel Sano - After launching 18 homers to go along with 52 RBIs and 46 runs scored in his 80-game rookie campaign last year, Sano carried a hefty price tag in drafts this spring. Through four games, that hefty price tag has produced no homers, no RBIs, no runs scored and seven strikeouts. The high strikeout rate is here to stay, but owners won't care about the strikeouts if they come along with 30-plus homers, and Sano's minor league numbers indicate that he's unlikely to be a batting average drain. Don't even think about selling low.

Pedro Alvarez - Alvarez was my guy this year. Immediately following his signing with the Orioles, I made the decision to draft him in as many leagues as possible, fully convinced that he can be the 2016 version of the 2014 Nelson Cruz, joining Baltimore on a one-year deal and taking full advantage of a cozy home ballpark. Maybe the batting average wouldn't be pretty, but Alvarez hit a combined 66 home runs from 2012-2013 and tallied 27 homers last year in what was considered a down season. Drafting Pedro for seven bucks in Mixed Auction Tout Wars was one of my best purchases. Or so I thought. Through four games, Alvarez is hitless, and I'm starting to wonder why the Pirates were so quick to release him over the winter.

At one time, I surely would have been freaking out about the early performance of Alvarez.

But now?

OK, I'm kind of freaking out.

One of the benefits of playing in six fantasy baseball leagues is that tough draft day decisions aren't quite as tough. Can't decide between Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Abreu? No problem. Draft Encarnacion in one league and Abreu in another. Although there are a handful of players that reside on three or four of my six rosters, I do try to incorporate this "spread the risk" approach when possible, when the decision is so close that I might as well keep things interesting by owning both players in at least one league.

Unfortunately, there will always be a few guys who you wanted to own in at least one league but miss out on drafting. Maybe your competition valued them a bit higher than you did. Maybe you were focused on filling a different position at that stage of the draft. Whatever the reason, it's frustrating. And it can become even more frustrating if the player gets off to a fast start. So, from a personal standpoint, who are some of the players that fit this description?  

Brandon Belt - Now in his sixth big league season, Belt has yet to live up to expectations. He was supposed to be a consistent, high AVG hitter with 30-home run upside. But he has yet to hit more than 18 homers in a season and sports a rather ordinary .272 career batting average. Still, Belt is only 27 years of age, so I figured that it could pay off to take a chance on him now that his price tag would no longer be heavily inflated by the "potential" factor. As it turned out, Belt did not come at much of a discount, especially in OBP leagues, so I passed. Through 11 games, the Giants first baseman is batting .300 with three homers, seven RBIs and six runs scored.

Christian Yelich - Yelich's across-the-board contributions translate quite well to the fantasy game, and he's especially appealing in OBP formats (career .369 OBP). Oh, and he's still only 24. My master plan was to draft Yelich in as many leagues as possible, but due to a combination of cost, categorical needs and positional needs, it just didn't work out. And that's too bad, because through eight games, the Marlins left fielder is 12-for-28 with seven walks (.429 AVG, .541 OBP), a homer and a steal.

Jonathan Schoop - Schoop's 2015 power display of 15 homers in only 305 at-bats was plenty encouraging, so encouraging that the Orioles second baseman headed into this season as a viable mid-round selection in mixed league drafts. How many home runs could Schoop hit with a full season of everyday at-bats? I was willing to pay up to find out, but as I assembled my various squads, I came to the conclusion that Schoop's skill set didn't fit in with the rest of the roster, and I wasn't about to draft him just for the sake of drafting him. Maybe I should have. Following Friday night's two-homer game, he now has three home runs and eight RBIs to go along with a .314 batting average through ten games.  

Felix Hernandez - Throughout the winter months, Hernandez headed my list of proven aces who could be drafted at a discount. King Felix was coming off what was perceived as a disappointing season, even though 95 percent of starting pitchers would gladly take a 3.53 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in a down year. After selecting him in the sixth round of the annual MLB.com mock draft, I was convinced that Hernandez would be a member of many of my real teams. But the more I read about the decreased velocity and the possibility that all of the innings would finally catch up to him, the more wary I became. And when it was made clear in drafts that the market was still valuing him as a bona fide ace, I opted to go in a different direction. My punishment for not trusting my own instincts? How about a 1.00 ERA through three starts with 20 strikeouts across 18 innings?    

Ian Kennedy - This season, for the first time in modern history, I did not draft Kennedy in any league. The strikeouts were tempting, but I was fed up with the inconsistency, and moving from the NL to the AL, especially Petco Park to the AL, can't be a good thing for any pitcher, right? Wrong. Two starts, two wins, 13 2/3 innings, one run, 14 strikeouts. The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of Kennedy playing for the Royals, a fly ball pitcher supported by an elite defense and making half of his starts in a ballpark that limits home runs. Maybe avoiding Kennedy was a mistake, and I had so many opportunities to draft him. This decision could haunt me for six months.

But then something strange happened. The Kennedy owner in one of my leagues dropped him last week.

I successfully claimed him off waivers last night.

As fantasy baseball owners, we all want our teams to start the season strong. After all, success in April provides instant gratification, instant positive feedback with respect to our draft day performance. But to tell you the truth, I've rarely been in a league where the team that occupied first place at the end of April went on to win the whole thing. Coming off a Tout Wars season in which I resided in first place every day from late-April until late-July before finishing in fourth place, I'm at the point where I'd actually rather not get off to a fast start. The pressure of holding onto a lead for such a long period of time is something that I'd rather not experience again. Middle of the pack after one month would suit me just fine.

Out of curiosity, I figured I'd look at last season's April hitting leaders in the five standard rotisserie categories. For the purposes of this exercise, I'm using Hits instead of AVG. Fantasy teams that included all or most of these guys must have been doing quite well in the early going, but this doesn't mean that they finished the year near the top of the standings, even the hitting standings.

HITS

Dee Gordon (38) - Even after his breakout 2014 campaign with the Dodgers, Gordon had his doubters. Would he be able to maintain his across-the-board improvement or would he return to being strictly a stolen base specialist? Gordon answered his critics by batting a career-high .333 with a .359 OBP and coming very close to matching his runs and stolen base totals from 2014. Now, he's widely viewed as at worst the #2 fantasy second baseman, behind only Jose Altuve.

HOME RUNS

Nelson Cruz/Hanley Ramirez (10) - I wasn't the only owner who avoided Cruz in drafts last season, fully convinced that he would fall well short of matching his 2014 stat line. As it turned out, he was even more productive in 2015, launching a career-best 44 homers while posting his highest batting average (.302) since 2010. In hindsight, of course, owners who chose to "sell high" on Cruz early in the season did not choose wisely.

RBI

Nelson Cruz/Hanley Ramirez (22) - Same duo as above, so we will focus on Hanley here. I wanted no part of Ramirez at this time last year. Injuries had limited the former fantasy first-rounder to a combined 214 games from 2013-2014 and I anticipated that his name value would inflate his draft day price to an unreasonable level. Through April, I clearly wasn't looking too good, but in the end, staying away from Hanley proved to be the right move. Ramirez would hit a combined nine homers to go along with 31 RBI from the beginning of May through the end of the season, along the way missing a significant amount of time due to injury.

RUNS

Matt Carpenter/Wil Myers (21) - Although it is highly unlikely that Carpenter will approach last season's home run total of 28, he's now averaged 109 runs per season from 2013-2015, and his knack for getting on base at a high rate (career .375 OBP) should enable him to once again rank among the league leaders in the category in 2016. As for Myers, his impressive April represented the highlight of his 2015 season. The former AL Rookie of the Year has been a popular middle to late round pick in drafts this spring, and owners who take a chance on him could very well be rewarded if only he can stay healthy. Myers has yet to play more than 88 games in a season.

STOLEN BASES

Billy Hamilton (13) - You know what you're getting with Hamilton, speed and little else. If you're into that sort of thing, by all means go ahead and spend an early-round pick on him (NFBC ADP: 85). I'd rather fill my speed need by drafting several 20-plus SB players who can also contribute in some of the other categories.

So in total, four out of these six players managed to parlay their hot starts last year into highly productive seasons. And yes, we'll include Hamilton in this group because he did what he was supposed to do, trailing only Dee Gordon in swipes.

Four out of six. Better than I thought.

Actually, I wouldn't mind getting off to a fast start.

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